Thursday, September 30, 2010

Crabby Old Lady Is Crabby

I'm tired, and the heat still lingers in SoCal. I got nuthin' this morning, so I'll let Crabby Old Lady do my talking for me.

Have a good day.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Who Could Have Imagined?

The privatizing of government functions has always struck me as foolish and dangerous in a democracy. We had plenty of evidence of that in the role of Blackwater/Xe in Iraq in which the private contractor and supplier of mercenaries to the war effort engaged in behavior contrary to the laws of military engagement while providing "security" for both the State Department and Defense Department. The theory behind this kind of privatization is that business can operate more efficiently (and therefor more cheaply) than government. Unfortunately, such contracts rarely provide the kind of oversight that does indeed reflect a cost savings to the taxpayer.

It's not just the federal government which has engaged in this kind of foolishness. Local governments, prompted by the push for better education, have turned over some public schools to private companies and then washed their hands of any involvement in the schools. At least one school district has now seen just how dangerous that can be.

Minnesota's alternative education schools need tough new rules and training programs to protect against conflicts of interest and other financial improprieties, State Auditor Rebecca Otto said Monday.

The auditor's report details allegations that the former president of an alternative learning center that had multimillion-dollar contracts with Minneapolis and Richfield public schools used his position to funnel almost $3 million to his own management firm. Otto said the board of directors for the Center for Training and Careers Inc. exercised inadequate oversight.

As a result, investigators found, Louis D. Gonzales shifted the money to his company, Little Feathers Group, between April 2003 and September 2007. ...

Otto's report arrives amid rising skepticism of management and financial practices at a range of nontraditional education providers, from charter schools to schools for dropouts.

Despite serving almost 150,000 full- or part-time students, the state's 300-plus taxpayer-funded alternative programs operate with little monitoring, and their finances face much less scrutiny than those of school districts and charter schools, she said. Alternative learning centers operate outside the conventional school system, and are designed to serve students who have been expelled or otherwise have trouble succeeding in conventional classrooms.

When the Legislature convenes in January, Otto said, she plans to recommend that lawmakers consider requiring school districts to oversee alternative education programs' finances, file management agreements and audited financial statements with the state Department of Education, and require conflict-of-interest rules and property lease restrictions.
[Emphasis added]

Instead of saving money, the state's poor decision cost local districts a whole bunch more as yet another "businessman" found a way to increase his personal bottom line. But more is at issue here than simply a scam artist finding a way to milk the system. While no rational person would dispute the need for government programs to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible, the purpose of government is totally different than that of business. Governments are supposed to serve the public welfare. Businesses are supposed to make money, a benefit which goes only to the owners of the businesses, and not to the public at large.

Turning over one of the most important government functions to private contractors is a recipe for disaster, both for the government and for the citizens that government is supposed to serve. This is one experiment which had failure written all over it right from the start.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I Am Just Saying ...

It troubles me that I am smarter than most of our national leaders. Oh, don't get me wrong: I have a very healthy ego. It's just that I have always assumed that the people we elect to represent us, people like Barack Obama, Harry Reid and Steny Hoyer, understand and can address the issues facing the nation better than I can. I clearly have misunderestimated my good sense and misoverestimated that of the Democratic leadership.

Take, for example, the angst among Democratic leaders over the soon to expire tax cuts for the wealthy. None are willing to go forward and let them expire while retaining tax breaks for the middle and lower classes, the people who work for a living (when there are jobs) and who vote. Their fear is that if the 2% wealthiest Americans have to pay their fair share, those people will not only not vote for Democrats, they won't invest in America, thereby providing jobs.

Look, you ignorant yahoos, those people are never going to vote for you. They also are not going to invest in this country when they can invest in countries whose labor forces are willing to work in deplorable conditions for subsistence wages. Haven't any of you paid attention the past 20 years?

The wealthiest who still have a conscience are more than willing to let you in on that secret; people like Garrett Gruener are trying to educate you, if you're interested.

And you'd better be interested. The election is only about a month away.

There's a whole lot of Americans who are ready for some real leadership on the issue, and they aren't actually calling it class warfare, but they're implying it. I'm not just talking about the dirty fucking hippies the White House is having such a good time punching either. People in Minnesota, for example, have gotten a clue, and they're running with it.

DFL governor candidate Mark Dayton's proposal to reduce the state's deficit by taxing the wealthy has wide support among likely voters this fall -- far ahead of the two other candidates' budget plans, according to a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.

Faced with a nearly $6 billion state budget gap, more than 60 percent of Minnesotans favor Dayton's plan to raise taxes on top earners. A plan that would reduce services and keep income taxes flat, favored by GOP candidate Tom Emmer, drew the support of 42 percent. The same percentage supported Independence Party candidate Tom Horner's proposal to broaden the sales tax as a means of closing the gap. ...

The results of the poll indicate that independents are leaning toward Dayton's plan to raise taxes on top earners.

"When you look where the independents are on these issues, they're closer to the Democrats," Hugick said.

Sixty percent of independents favor raising the income tax, while 46 percent support expanding the sales tax and 41 percent endorsed a reduction in state services to avoid tax increases.

Eighty-two percent of Democrats favored raising the income tax and 63 percent of Republicans favored a reduction in state services.


Anybody with a brain, brain stem, and consciousness listening?


Monday, September 27, 2010

A Billion Dollars Here ...

If people really wanted to trim dollars from the federal budget, they might want to take a look at what it costs to hold illegal immigrants in detention centers around the country. These are people who are not guilty of any crime beyond being in the country without the requisite papers, yet they are housed for months, even years, while the federal immigration authorities decide what to do with them. What's worse is that these people are held without any actual access to legal counsel or even to their own families, as this brief editorial in the Los Angeles Times points out.

A 2005 Migration Policy Institute study found that the odds of success double when detainees seeking to become lawful permanent citizens have attorneys. For those seeking asylum, the odds of success increase sixfold. Also, in many cases attorneys succeed not by helping detainees remain in the United States but by assisting efforts to speed deportation proceedings, freeing them to return home.

Yet a recent report by the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center found that 80% of detainees are held in facilities whose location makes it difficult to find and retain an attorney. The detention center in El Centro, for example, has more detainees than any other in the country, but because of its location, they have the least access to attorneys. At more than a quarter of the nation's 300 facilities, there is no access at all to legal aid from the nongovernmental organizations that provide low-cost and pro bono attorneys for detainees, and the federal government's legal orientation programs— which are not an adequate substitute for an attorney but are nevertheless of much assistance — are available in only 17% of facilities. Lastly, rules regulating telephone access to attorneys are cumbersome to the point of hindering access.
[Emphasis added]

Why we are imprisoning people who have committed no crime is hard to understand. That we are doing so without giving them practical access to due process is unconscionable. Those arguments don't apparently hold water anymore, so perhaps an appeal to the frugal might work.

It costs the federal taxpayer over $2 billion a year to feed and house the immigrants. Why not place them in "house arrest" type programs? Why not give them real legal assistance so that hearings on their cases can be handled expeditiously and if there are no justifiable reasons for their being here they can be returned to their nations quickly? Why have them locked up in federal detention centers for so long?

That's something real immigration reform should address. Of course, that item isn't on the table right now. We have more important problems to address, like how to justify making permanent the tax cuts to the wealthy.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Li Po

Nefarious War

(Translated from the Chinese by Shigeyoshi Obata)

Last year we fought by the head-stream of the So-Kan,
This year we are fighting on the Tsung-ho road.
We have washed our armor in the waves of the Chiao-chi lake,
We have pastured our horses on Tien-shan’s snowy slopes.
The long, long war goes on ten thousand miles from home.
Our three armies are worn and grown old.

The barbarian does man-slaughter for plowing;
On his yellow sand-plains nothing has been seen but blanched skulls and bones.
Where the Chin emperor built the walls against the Tartars,
There the defenders of Han are burning beacon fires.
The beacon fires burn and never go out.
There is no end to war!—

In the battlefield men grapple each other and die;
The horses of the vanquished utter lamentable cries to heaven,
While ravens and kites peck at human entrails,
Carry them up in their flight, and hang them on the branches of dead trees.
So, men are scattered and smeared over the desert grass,
And the generals have accomplished nothing.

Oh, nefarious war! I see why arms
Were so seldom used by the benign sovereigns.

--Li Po (c. 750)

With Malice Toward None

On Thursday evening, Virginia executed Teresa Lewis for her role in the murder of her husband and step-son. Talk Left has a wonderfully simple but crystal clear comment on this.

California is about to re-enter the business of state-sanctioned murder as well, now that a federal judge has cleared the path, as reported in the Los Angeles Times. [Warning, the article is quite macabre, even grisly, so keep that in mind when clicking on the link.]

A federal judge on Friday cleared the way for the first execution in California in nearly five years when he refused to halt murderer-rapist Albert Greenwood Brown's death by lethal injection, scheduled for Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel expressed concern about the limited time he had to evaluate the state's newly revised execution procedures and gave Brown the choice of being put to death by a single injection, as practiced in Washington and Ohio, instead of by the state's three-drug method.

How kind of Judge Fogel to give Mr. Greenwood the option of choosing to die with one shot or three. I guess he had to consider the method, given the various rulings that the three-drug method often failed, leading to extremely painful deaths, thus constituting cruel and unusual punishment.

For some, that was not a bug, it was a feature. The argument runs that "justice" is being served by killing those that commit the ultimate crime, but that's patently bogus. That is not justice. That is revenge, a left-over from our tribal days when an eye-for-an-eye was considered appropriate, when chopping off the hand of a thief was only fair, when stoning an adulteress was fitting. So much for the shining beacon of liberty.

I made my usual trek to Watching America yesterday and came across an editorial in Germany's Frankfurter Rundschau. It's a pretty good analysis of how our nation is viewed when it comes to our barbarous death penalty. I am violating fair use principles by quoting the editorial in its entirety.

The United States remains on its sad, lonely path, unique among Western democracies.

There’s no doubt about Teresa Lewis’s guilt, but what has American society gained now that she has been executed? Her case is a dramatic example of the arbitrariness and injustice of America’s execution mills.

Opponents of the death penalty have demonstrated for decades that the poor, members of ethnic minorities and those not mentally able to defend themselves in a court of law are sentenced to death more often than other perpetrators. In the Lewis case, where the actual killers got off with prison sentences, the injustice was especially blatant.

Optimists like to point out that the death penalty is being applied less and less in many states. Whether that’s a reflection of a change in the American political climate is questionable. The governor of Virginia, who denied Lewis clemency and ordered the execution to proceed, even wants to expand the death penalty to cover other crimes. The United States remains the only Western democracy to continue down this sad and lonely path.

And so I find yet another thing to mourn about this country, a country I truly believed had such promise. I'm beginning to understand that famously short verse in the Bible, one of the few I can actually recite accurately:

Jesus wept.


Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Joel Pett / Lexington Herald-Leader (September 24, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Leopard Seal

(Photograph by John Eastcott and Yva Momatiuk and published at National Geographic.)

Keeping Company

Tim Rutten's latest column takes a look at the budding relationship between billionaire Libertoonian brothers David and Charles Koch and Carly Fiorina, the Republican challenger to Senator Barbara Boxer and finds some rather interesting shared views. The Koch brothers are currently pouring a lot of money into Proposition 23, which would effectively roll back a law to force industries to reduce carbon emissions. Apparently they've found a kindred spirit in Fiorina.

Though one brother lives in Wichita, Kan., and the other in Manhattan, they seem to be taking a particular interest in California politics this year. They helped mount the campaign for Proposition 23, the ballot measure that essentially would gut AB 32, the state law mandating lower carbon emissions as a step toward addressing global warming. A Koch Industries PAC has also donated $5,000 to Fiorina, and the company was among the sponsors of a Washington fundraiser for her Thursday night.

After a good deal of back and forth, Fiorina — who also supports offshore oil drilling, another Koch favorite — recently endorsed Proposition 23, just as the Koch brothers' company pumped $1 million into its campaign. This month, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Morain noted that, while the brothers' oil companies stand to profit mightily from Proposition 23's passage, they also have an interest in seeing that other states don't emulate California's attempt to reduce carbon emissions. Two years ago, this state adopted model air-quality regulations curbing cancer-causing emissions of formaldehyde in the forest products industry. Federal interest in adopting similar curbs is causing Georgia-Pacific no end of grief. ...

Organizations that monitor employment practices also cite Koch Industries as one of the most ruthless exporters of American manufacturing jobs to foreign countries. Before she was ousted as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, Fiorina laid off 30,000 workers and outsourced thousands of positions abroad, so perhaps the Kochs sense a kindred spirit.
[Emphasis added]

I don't think we should misunderestimate the Koch Boys. They have a lot of money which they are apparently quite willing to spend in political contests that have a bearing on how much more money is still out there for them to grab. Still, Fiorina's decision to support Prop 23 (right now the hottest button on the November ballot) is not the best decision she could have made. Even Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for governor purportedly doesn't think the proposition is a good idea, although her opponent, Jerry Brown, is calling on her to take a strong stand, one way or the other.

Perhaps Carly got wind of the latest Field Poll which shows that Sen. Boxer now has a 6 point lead in the race, up from the 3 point lead she had in July. Powerful allies like the Koch Boys might be an attractive fix for her campaign.

Of course, they might also give her an aura of the crazy libertarianism the two brothers hold, and that just might do her in.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

About Time

In July, I had a series of posts on Avandia, the blood glucose lowering drug offered by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline which in too many cases led to increased risk of heart attacks, heart failure, and even death. The thrust of the posts was that the company knew about the increased risks of the drug which in fact lowered blood glucose among Type II diabetes, but hid the details of even its own studies from the FDA and from doctors and their patients.

After nearly two years of investigations, independent studies and reviews, the FDA has finally made its decision and announced it in concert with its counterparts in Europe.

From the New York Times:

In a highly unusual coordinated announcement, drug regulators in Europe and the United States said Thursday that Avandia, the controversial diabetes medicine, would no longer be widely available.

The drug’s sales will be suspended entirely in Europe, while patients in the United States will be allowed access to the medicine only if they and their doctors attest that they have tried every other diabetes medicine and that patients have been made aware of the drug’s substantial risks to the heart. Patients now taking Avandia may continue to do so.

The Food and Drug Administration’s decision shows that the Obama administration is taking a harder line on drug safety issues, even in the face of scientific uncertainty. Along with its announcement, the agency for the first time immediately posted on its Web site internal memorandums from top staff members that in some cases offered entirely contradictory advice. Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the agency’s commissioner, said that passions within the agency had run high on the Avandia decision.

A couple of things came to mind as I read the article. The first is that the whole process could have and should have been less devastating to the 47,000 people who got hit with the side effects, some of whom died. If the drug company had been forced to come forward with the information on the possible side effects before FDA approval, some of the suffering might never have occurred. This rushing to market of drugs with great promise has too often resulted in disaster, and it appears that the FDA just might have learned its lesson this time, at least under this administration.

Another thing which came to mind is that pharmaceutical companies might have finally learned their lesson, at least for the nonce. As I noted in this post in July, the members of the industry trade group have put together some guidelines for more transparency in their clinical trials, mandating revealing both the good news and the bad news.

Perhaps the most important thing which struck me, however, is that ultimately the whole post-release review process came about because some fine investigative journalism by the NY Times and other media outlets was done once the hints of the problem were sniffed out. This is one of the vital functions of our free press, and one that has been lamentably absent over the past decades as money and political power trumped any attempt at rational public discourse.

This time the system worked, even if it did take too damned long.

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Another Scam

Yesterday I posted on how insurance companies intend to avoid the new healthcare requirement that they stop denying coverage to children with pre-existing conditions. They simply won't offer policies. It's all perfectly legal.

Today I'm interested in one of the not-so-legal insurance company policies, "Essential Health Plans", marketed to people who can't afford traditional plans. Minnesota has cracked down on these cheap but essentially useless policies and one of the companies it nailed is AIG.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce has fined an insurance company owned by the troubled American International Group Inc. $100,000 for deceptive marketing and ordered it to refund money to those who bought policies.

At least 1,500 Minnesotans bought the "Essential Health" plans from the National Union Fire Insurance Co. of Pittsburgh, a unit of AIG based in New York.

The Essential Health plans included accident and sickness insurance as well as medical discounts. However, they were not approved for sale by the Minnesota Commerce Department and did not meet state requirements. ...

The department's move is part of a growing national crackdown on bogus medical plans. As many Americans have lost their health insurance along with their jobs, they've become vulnerable to companies selling cheaper alternatives. When these buyers seek medical care, they discover too late that the plans don't cover much.
[Emphasis added]

In other words, families have been paying $40-50 a month for nothing. Nice scam, eh? What's even more brazen about the program is that it happened after the federal government poured millions in bailout money to keep AIG afloat, taking a 79% ownership in the company. And the scammers didn't even bother to take certain steps which would give at least the appearance of a legitimate operation:

[Deputy Commerce Commissioner] Munson-Regala said the marketing of the Essential Health policies violated Minnesota law in several ways.

"No. 1, they were not approved for sale in the state. No. 2, they wouldn't have met the requirements for approval anyway. No. 3, they misled consumers as to the nature of the products, and No. 4, the folks selling the insurance in Minnesota were not licensed in Minnesota," he said.

The department has instructed the National Union Fire Insurance Co. to fully refund to all Minnesotans who bought polices the money they paid.

Nice, huh?

Keep in mind that this was one of those companies we were told was "too big to fail."

I really am getting closer to taking to my bed.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Sound Of Shoes Dropping

The argument given during the drafting of Health Care Reform was that by requiring all Americans to have health insurance, the insurance companies would be so grateful for the enormous increase in policies and premiums that they would of course be happy to stop denying coverage to children with pre-existing conditions. As crunch time for implementing that provision of the Health Care Act approaches, the health insurance industry is showing some not-so-good faith evidence of their gratitude.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Major health insurance companies in California and other states have decided to stop selling policies for children rather than comply with a new federal healthcare law that bars them from rejecting youngsters with preexisting medical conditions.

Anthem Blue Cross, Aetna Inc. and others will halt new child-only policies in California, Illinois, Florida, Connecticut and elsewhere as early as Thursday when provisions of the nation's new healthcare law take effect, including a requirement that insurers cover children under age 19 regardless of their health histories. ...

Insurers said they were acting because the new federal requirement could create huge and unexpected costs for covering children. They said the rule might prompt parents to buy policies only after their kids became sick, producing a glut of ill youngsters to insure. As a result, they said, many companies would flee the marketplace, leaving behind a handful to shoulder a huge financial burden.

The insurance companies won't deny coverage, they'll just stop issuing policies, which means the state and federal governments will be stuck with the costs of insuring those children under Medicaid plans. Those who don't qualify for Medicaid will just have to hope that they can find a high-risk pool/coop program in their area for such coverage.

Some gratitude, eh?

When the California state legislature got wind of the insurance companies' move, it acted swiftly:

In California, the stakes may be particularly high for insurers who abandon child-only policies. A bill awaiting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's signature would bar such companies from selling insurance in the lucrative individual market for five years. A Schwarzenegger spokeswoman said the governor had not yet taken a position on the measure.

The problem is that our lame duck governor probably will not sign the bill and will justify his veto on the loss of jobs involved or some such nonsense. After all, he has his insurance guaranteed for the rest of his life, courtesy of the California taxpayer, so what does he care?

Heckuva job, Barack.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Say, What?

Garrett Gruener, the founder of, chief executive of Nanomix, the co-founder and director of the venture capital firm Alta Partners and a member of the advisory board at NDN, a center-left think tank in Washington, is by his own admission a very wealthy man. He is also a very unusual man: he thinks his taxes should be raised, according to his op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times. His reasoning is pretty difficult to dispute.

For nearly the last decade, I've paid income taxes at the lowest rates of my professional career. Before that, I paid at higher rates. And if you want the simple, honest truth, from my perspective as an entrepreneur, the fluctuation didn't affect what I did with my money. None of my investments has ever been motivated by the rate at which I would have to pay personal income tax. ...

When inequality gets too far out of balance, as it did over the course of the last decade, the wealthy end up saving too much while members of the middle class can't afford to spend much unless they borrow excessively. Eventually, the economy stalls for lack of demand, and we see the kind of deflationary spiral we find ourselves in now. I believe it is no coincidence that the two highest peaks in American income inequality came in 1929 and 2008, and that the following years were marked by low economic activity and significant unemployment.

What American businesspeople know, and have known since Henry Ford insisted that his employees be able to afford to buy the cars they made, is that a thriving economy doesn't just need investors; it needs people who can buy the goods and services businesses create. For the overall economy to do well, everyday Americans have to do well.
[Emphasis added]

In order to get to that point Mr. Gruener believes that the tax breaks accorded him by the Bush Administration should be allowed to expire and the extra money flowing into the government should be used to invest in projects that will have the effect of putting people back to work at meaningful jobs: improving an aging infrastructure and building a smart energy grid are two of the examples he lists. When the not-rich get back on their feet, the economy will rebound, and private investors will have enough confidence to get back in the game.

What will change my investment decisions is if I see an economy doing better, one in which there is demand for the goods and services my investments produce. I am far more likely to invest if I see a country laying the foundation for future growth. In order to get there, we first need to let the Bush-era tax cuts for the upper 2% lapse. It is time to tax me more.

Pretty stunning, that. And right on the money.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

A Good Sign

The Boston Globe had a short article that was long on positive news for that area. A European automaker has decided to use a small company in Massachusetts for the production of the batteries in its all-electric vehicle.

The Swedish automaker Saab Automotive AB is about to unveil its first all-electric vehicle, which is powered by a battery from Boston-Power Inc. of Westborough.

The Saab 9-3 ePower sport wagon will debut Sept. 30 at the Paris Auto Show. “I am absolutely thrilled,’’ said Boston-Power chief executive Christina Lampe-Onnerud, who said her company’s battery will give the car exceptional performance. “This car has 27 percent more driving range per weight and volume than any other [electric] car,’’ she said. ...

The ePower is a standard Saab 9-3 model with the gasoline engine and drivetrain removed. Instead, it is fitted with a 184-horsepower electric motor to drive the vehicle’s front wheels, along with a Boston-Power lithium-ion battery pack. Saab expects the ePower to travel up to 124 miles on a single charge. The car will accelerate from zero to 62 miles per hour in 8.5 seconds and reach a top speed of 93 miles per hour. Lampe-Onnerud said the car’s recharging speed would depend on the kind of recharging equipment used. But she said the Boston-Power battery is capable of charging to full power in an hour, reaching 80 percent of capacity in 30 minutes.

The car is not the typical hard charging speed demon, but it will do the job for local commutes in most places, even in California. And it's all-electric: no gasoline will be powering it and polluting the air. But here's the best part of the story:

In June, Boston-Power said it plans to double its workforce both in Massachusetts, where it had 110 workers, and abroad, where it has 400 workers, mostly in Taiwan. It also said it plans to build a battery factory in either Europe or China.

A hundred new jobs in this country isn't much, but it's a start. If Saab's ePower is a hit with the public, both in Europe and the US, chances are more people will get jobs, not only with Boston-Power but also with other companies which will spring up to get in on the action of providing batteries for such vehicles. Even our own automakers may get inspired to build such vehicles.

It's a start, and a clean one at that.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Sara McNulty

Bloody Steps - Haiku

Bloodied, burned children
Soldiers return; backs are turned
Next country, new name.

--Sara McNulty

(Found at Poets Against War.)

The Internal Enemy Is Back

There's still a lot of fallout from the US's commemoration of 9/11 if the articles at Watching America are any reflection. One that particularly struck me is from France's Le Monde. I found it ironic at several levels that a French newspaper would issue a commentary on US nativism, given the recent French legislation to ban burqas and the push to remove the Roma from its land, but the article doesn't duck that charge a whit. What the article does engage is the growing wave of hatred for all things Islamic in the US, and sees it as just one more spasm against "the other" this country routinely wallows in.

What a regression in 15 months! On June 4, 2009, in his famous speech in Cairo, Obama set out to restore the extremely damaged relationship between the U.S. and the Islamic world. ...

...meanwhile, those who believe Islam to be an illegitimate faith in the U.S. threaten to gain ground each day. The phenomenon is accompanied by a sudden rise in public hatred toward Muslims (which has increased from 0.8 percent to 1.4 percent of the population). The craziest beliefs circulate among ever-widening circles: the "masked" Muslim, Obama secretly preparing to establish the Sharia in his country … With the general elections approaching on Nov. 4, the Republican opposition avoids publicly denouncing racist ideas, which serves tacitly to legitimize their expression. Republicans used the same tactic during the political campaign against a Muslim community center being built close to Ground Zero.

The United States has always been known for its raging outbursts against the ''internal enemy," despite claiming to be a model for continued integration of immigrants, the cornerstone upon which the nation was built. Even beyond African Americans and Native American Indians, this enemy often wears the face of the last immigrant group to date. Or minority groups such as Jews, Mormons, Catholics and Communists … Against whom, a few months ago, conservative politicians launched an anti-immigration campaign that was unsuccessful this time. However, a well-known sector of American opinion seems more receptive towards Islamophobia.
[Emphasis added]

While the Islamophobia is simply an iteration of the racism which constantly lurks behind the American dream, it feels different this time around, primarily because it is "justified" by the attack of 9/11. Americans aren't embarrassed by the expressions of hatred, fear, revenge. In fact, many on the far right are busy encouraging just those emotions as the natural response to an enemy.

When a state party includes a plank in their platform forbidding the imposition of Sharia Law as the Iowa Republican Party did, there's something seriously wrong with this country. There must be a DSM diagnosis for this mental aberration, as suggested by a commentator for the UK's Independent. Whatever the diagnosis, however, some serious measures to cure it are needed.

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Sunday Funnies

Political cartoon by Tom Toles and published in the Washington Post. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Asian Elephant

(Photograph by William Albert Allard and published at National Geographic.)

The Price Of Admission

Tim Rutten, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, noted a couple of records smashed in California this week in his latest effort. The first: this is the longest California has gone without a budget, which was due July 1. The second: mega-millionaire Meg Christian has spent more of her own money on her campaign for governor than any other politician in this country.

...According to the most recent campaign finance reports, the former EBay chief executive has spent an astonishing $119 million out of her own pocket on her campaign. She already has surpassed the previous record of $109 million that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent to win a third term. And there still are seven weeks to go in her tight race against the state's attorney general and former governor, Jerry Brown.

In fact, Whitman now has spent more of her own money than any American candidate ever has spent running for any office, including president. (Ross Perot set the federal record when he spent just $63.5 million on his failed third-party bid.) Whitman's contributions to herself make her California's biggest political contributor of the past decade, according to the Fair Political Practices Commission. The next biggest is film producer/green industrialist Steve Bing, who has doled out $58,050,783 to a wider variety of liberal initiatives and Democratic candidates. Rounding out the top five are three other major self-financiers: Republican Steve Poizner ($43,205,282), Democrat Steve Westly ($41,728,277) and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ($25,871,398).

As Rutten points out, at least the Mayor of New York refused any outside contributions. His campaign was entirely self-financed so he could claim that he wouldn't be beholden to any special interests. Whitman, on the other hand, is busy collecting contributions from all the usual suspects. She claims she knows how to withstand the pressure from those who think they are buying access. We won't know, however, until she takes office if she wins. You see, Meg Whitman has never run for office, much less won, so she has no record. Like the current Governor of California, she has no political experience. All she has is her touted business successes, also like the current Governor. We see where that has gotten the state.

Should she and other wealthy people be precluded from running for elected office? Certainly not, but her lavish campaign budget raises the bar for those not of the monied class. Who would want to take on a campaign against a gazillionaire with unlimited resources, who would outspend in every respect on every issue?

It might be different if Whitman really was bringing something to the table other than her own fortune and her own business model, especially during these tough times in California, but she isn't, as Tim Rutten notes:

Her major budget proposals — she wants to throw 40,000 middle-class state employees out of work with unemployment already running more than 12%, and she advocates abolishing capital gains taxes, thereby further enriching people like herself while income inequality grows and middle-class salaries and wages continue to decline — are neither novel nor evidence of independence. They are, rather, pretty much what her background and base of financial support would predict.

And, as Arnold Schwarzenegger discovered, her political base within the Republican Party is shallow. We don't have a budget because he can't jawbone the Republicans in the Legislature into any kind of compromise.

About the only solace I can find in this campaign is that even after all the millions she has spent on the campaign trail, the race is still close. It will all depend on voter turnout, I guess, and that is worrisome.

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Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Crazy Is As Crazy Does

I received quite a jolt this morning, and it certainly didn't come from the decaf I drink to start the day. The "center-left" editorial board of the Los Angeles Times actually came out swinging in one of their editorials today, and it used a Louisville Slugger.

Whatever one thinks of his politics, Newt Gingrich has demonstrated a wide-ranging intelligence over the years. But there's nothing intelligent about his recent endorsement of the theory that President Obama's political philosophy is rooted in a "Kenyan, anti-colonial" worldview. Bizarre is more like it.

National Review Online reports that the former speaker of the House praised conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza for a "stunning insight" into the president's behavior. That "insight," the subject of an article in Forbes magazine, is that to understand Obama's views, one must scrutinize the opinions of his Kenyan father, who left Obama when he was 2 years old.
[Emphasis added]

I disagree that Newt Gingrich has ever "demonstrated a wide-ranging intelligence." He has simply combined a facility with language and a flair for the dramatic, qualities usually found in politicians and snake-oil salesmen. Still, even my eyebrows were raised by Gingrich's praise of D'Souza's "insight," an insight uttered by a man the editorial dismisses as "reliably wrong." Gingrich, obviously on the come-back trail, has, after all, some intelligence, although after his comments I'm not so sure of even that.

After some polite unpacking of D'Souza's wild theorizing (the racist part is never mentioned), the editorial ends with an unbelievably strong (for the "center-left" editorial board) conclusion on Mr. Gingrich's stance:

Gingrich used to be a serious figure. He is mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2012. But he has earned the description he applied to Obama: "If you look at [his] continuous denial of reality, there has got to be a point where someone stands up and says that this is just factually insane." [Emphasis added]


That's gotta leave a mark.

And it's about time somebody called the crazy what it is.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Different Kind Of Tea Party

Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland is still one of my favorite pieces of literature. These days I find myself going back to the Mad Hatter's tea party time and again as the perfect metaphor for so much of what is going on in this country. Take, for example, this bit of news on the division of tasks between the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture when it comes to managing the safety of the nation's food supply.

As lawmakers prepare for hearings into the largest egg recall in U.S. history, food safety advocates say the congressional probe could give momentum to a long-delayed measure that would enhance the power of the Food and Drug Administration.

If passed, say policymakers, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act could be the first major step toward streamlining the often unwieldy food safety system.

For example, in the U.S. cheese pizza is regulated by one federal agency, but a pepperoni pizza is overseen by another. An open-faced turkey sandwich, likewise, falls under the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but one with two slices of bread is under the jurisdiction of the FDA. Liquid beef broth and dehydrated chicken broth? USDA. Liquid chicken broth and dehydrated beef broth? FDA. ...

The USDA regulates the quality of eggs still in their shells; it also inspects liquid, dried and frozen egg products. The FDA is responsible for the safety of eggs still in their shells, but until recently it could intervene only after problems became evident. So neither agency was proactive about examining the production facilities operated by Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms of Iowa, where federal inspectors recently found giant manure piles, rodents and maggots.

In other words, there is no coherence in the way food producers are regulated. Nor, at least at this point, is there any way to force recalls when dangerous conditions lead to polluted food. When bad food hits the markets and people are sickened, all the FDA can do is recommend a recall to the producer of that bad food. Generally, the industry complies, primarily to avoid litigation, but they can delay the recall while they lawyer up.

The bill currently pending in the Senate would at least grant the FDA the power to force recalls. It doesn't, however, address the problems of the insanely crafted overlap of jurisdiction between the two agencies. Consumer advocates still think the bill would get things started in that direction, and most food producers seem to be behind the bill unless too many costly amendments are added. At least one Republican (Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma) has threatened to hold the bill up because it expands the authority of the FDA too much. No surprise there.

The real problem is going to be to get the Senate to act on the bill at all this term. November elections are looming, and there's an enormous backlog of business still to be considered. Harry Reid may not feel that such a bill has any priority at this point. And that's a shame.

Clean cups! Clean cups!

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Good News

Back in May, I posted on the severe financial problems the gang intervention program known as Homeboy Industries faced. The program, run by Father Gregory Boyle, had run out of money and had just laid off all of its paid staff. Well, the program got a big boost yesterday from the Los Angeles Country Board of Supervisors.

Los Angeles County supervisors Tuesday awarded Homeboy Industries a $1.3-million contract, providing critically needed funding for the gang intervention program founded two decades ago by Father Gregory Boyle.

Earlier this year, crushing financial problems forced Homeboy officials to lay off most employees. The organization, which uses jobs to draw young people away from gangs, had seen a steep decline in charitable contributions since the economic downturn even as demand for its programs soared.

The county contract will make it possible for Homeboy to hire 20 job trainees and provide employment counseling, tattoo removal, mental health, legal and other services for 665 people. It targets probationers and other individuals ages 14 to 30 considered at risk of incarceration.

The contract, which is based on money already allocated in the County Budget, only runs through June because funding for any kind of social services is dicey for the new budget, given the state's problems, but it certainly gives new life to one of the most successful projects of its kind in the country. Thousands of probationers and at-risk kids have gone to Homeboy Industries and found ways to turn their lives around.

Father Gregory's formula is a simple one: get these young people jobs, and the programs focuses on ways to accomplish that. Some of them go to work at Homeboy Bakery or Homegirl Cafe. Some of them get training and tips and are matched with local companies. They get their gang tattoos removed, they get taught how to fill out employment applications, they even learn how to dress for an interview.

For those worried about taxpayers' money going to a religious organization, relax. Homeboy industries may have been founded by a Roman Catholic priest, but there are no religious requirements to get the services offered or to work on the project's staff. Father Gregory's "occupation" is coincidental.

What we should be worried about is that Father Gregory and his staff have been doing the County's job with respect to providing a smoother re-entry for the kids who have gotten into trouble. The probation department, for all sorts of reasons, hasn't been able to cope with parolees and probationers, much less kids who are at risk for becoming parolees and probationers down the line. It's about time the County paid for the services Homeboy Industries has been providing in its place.

Homeboy Industries isn't out of the woods yet, but it's close to getting back on its feet. For that, we should all be grateful, especially those of us who live in Los Angeles.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Nope, No Change Here

Remember how Barach Obama promised to end the intrusion of corporate and political interests on science? Yeah, me too. Unfortunately, we haven't seen that come to pass when it comes to the role of scientists in government, especially when it comes to such agencies as the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture, both key to the nation's monitoring of the food supply.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Scientists and inspectors at the federal agencies responsible for food safety say they face political and corporate interference with their work, according to a survey released Monday by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonpartisan advocate for unbiased science in government. ...

Almost half of those surveyed said that in the last year they had experienced "situations where corporate interests have forced the withdrawal or significant modification of [an agency] policy or action designed to protect consumers or public health."

And 45% said they had experienced similar interference by members of Congress.

Fifty-four percent said the agencies gave political interests too much weight in their decision-making.

"Typically, once a member of Congress gets involved, the agency does whatever it can to make the situation go away rather than address food safety issues," one USDA employee wrote in an anonymous essay that accompanied the survey questionnaire.

So, this is how outbreaks of salmonella in eggs happen; how tons of bad meats have to be recalled because people have been sickened and died; how peanut butter can be hazardous to our health even if we aren't allergic to peanuts.

It's bad enough that corporate interests can forestall a legitimate investigation into slaughterhouses or egg factories, but it's even worse that lobbyists can access their favorite congress critters and get them to stop agency actions which are necessary for the common welfare.

While I admit that President Obama inherited an executive branch polluted with this kind of problem, I find it hard, if not impossible, to believe that after nearly two years in office the picture hasn't changed, even minimally. How many people have to die before the president follows through on his promise? How many years/elections will it take? Four?

Nope, no change here.

It's business, as usual.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

What George Said

Last Friday I posted on the amazing role former Reagan Secretary of State George P. Schultz's role in the movement to defeat Prop 23, the ballot initiative which would delay the implementation of California's Clean Energy law. My thoughts were that if this original Reagan Republican could see the dangers of climate change caused by carbon-based energy sources, then the tide might be turning.

Yesterday, the Sacramento Bee published an opinion piece written by Mr. Schultz in which he passionately details just why Prop 23 must be defeated, and he does so from a specifically Republican stance.

California's vision of a cleaner environment and reduced dependence on foreign oil and dirty fuels is now under attack. Make no mistake: Proposition 23 seeks to derail our future through a process of indefinite postponement of our state's clean energy and clean air standards. A future for California based on clean-power technologies is both an economic and environmental necessity.

It's about preserving clean air for our kids and fostering good jobs for our workers. It's about a California that leads the world in the next great global industry and in facing the next great global challenge. The effort to derail it would be a tragic mistake. ...

In the United States, we face three major energy issues. Our economy is disrupted by periodically spiking oil prices. Our national security is threatened by dependence on uncertain sources of oil and by the flow of funds to oil-providing countries that do not wish us well. Indirectly, potential terrorist groups are also funded and strengthened. Our climate is threatened by the destructive impact of global warming caused by the accumulation of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels. These ongoing problems are real, important and potentially severe. ...
[Emphasis added]

While I admit to being amused at the ranking of the issues as specifically Republican, the man is right. And he cheerfully quotes other Republicans who also warned of the dangers of global warming, although I suspect one of those Republicans, Sen. John McCain, has backed off the issue during his election campaign. Mr. Schultz also reminds us that Ronald Reagan himself recognized the problem and pushed through the Montreal Protocol while president, even if he did remove the solar panels from the White House.

Mr. Schultz in effect argues that this is not a partisan issue, nor should it be. Climate change affects everyone, and it does affect our nation's health at all levels. California may be just one state among 50, but it has long led the nation in innovative solutions to national problems, often pushing the federal government to move on key issues such as clean air and fuel efficiency which corporate nay-sayers have ultimately followed through on when pressed.

Mr. Schultz may have gotten things wrong when serving in the Reagan White House; he certainly is not wrong this time.

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Emily Dickinson

"Hope" is the thing with feathers

"Hope" is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I've heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

--Emily Dickinson

Antidote For Teh Crazy

I know, I know, 9/11 is over, at least for another year, but I'm not quite finished with it. My visit to Watching America this morning provided me with a pretty good analysis of just why I wasn't quite done with this secular Holy Day. It came in the form of an op-ed piece in Italy's La Stampa in which the saga of Rev. Jones, would-be Quran burner, is explored.

How can this obscure reverend in the mood for provocations become a global phenomenon, instead of being pitied by his countrymen? The answer fully involves the world of media that have turned him into a star, that besiege him for days with microphones, cameras, tape recorders and notebooks, and have placed around his trailer dozens of satellite dishes. In order not to miss anything, to revive as soon as possible every incendiary syllable and perhaps even the image of the final fire, that fire of holy books of Islam that would have the immediate effect of lighting up another plethora of idiots who are just waiting for this to happen, at all latitudes. ... [Emphasis added]


But Mario Calabresi, the author of the piece, goes further by examining just what the media could have and should have done with the story of an idiot. He considers the possibility of just ignoring the fool, but ultimately rejects it because while the mainstream media might have other stories worthier of coverage, the internet provides plenty of space for such stories without any of the checks that the mainstream media has to work under. Instead, he suggests that the media could have gone back to real journalism in its coverage:

One thing we could do: a road exists, but it doesn’t pass through censorship or silence — instead it requires the effort of returning every image with its true colors, replacing it into its context. We must do more journalism, not surrender to the avalanche of fake images or slogans.

All the newspapers in the world have talked about the "mosque at ground zero" and many in the world are outraged: Perhaps the effect would have been different if everyone had written that the prayer hall should be built three blocks from the site where the Twin Towers were, and that four blocks away another mosque (which nobody has ever dreamed to close) already exists.

We need to do quality journalism in order to lower the fever of sensationalism: It means that we need to look for data and statistics to give the due weight to our concerns, whether it is the number of crimes, the illegal immigrants, the number of people with swine flu or of mosques with a minaret (in Germany there are 206, in Italy three). It means that we need to give voice to those entitled to speak and not just to the ones who guarantee to make more noise or to put up a show.

To do journalism in this way is difficult, but it is the only road we have to save ourselves from the invasion of the false and the likely, to try to understand something in this global chaos.

From your lips, Mr. Calabresi, to the ears of every editor and executive producer in the world.


Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Mike Luckovitch and published 9/9/10 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Meller's Chameleon

(Photograph by Marian Bacon/Animals Animals—Earth Scenes and published at National Geographic.)

For Shame, Mr. President

Tim Rutten has written another column that nails it, and its timing is perfect. He reminds us that we lost more than thousands of lives and an iconic landmark on this day nine years ago. He also points to the fact that in many respects, a change in administrations was in fact no change at all.

The story of how the Bush-Cheney administration rushed to make torture an instrument of national policy in its "war on terror," and of how it created an international gulag in which to abuse prisoners, is well known. Less remarked on — for reasons that do nobody credit — is the fact that President Obama and his administration have embraced the secrecy and usurpations of power that made possible the Bush-Cheney betrayal of American values. ...

As former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden told the Washington Times this week, differences between the Bush-Cheney White House for which he worked and the Obama administration on these issues essentially are minor.

"You've got state secrets, targeted killings, indefinite detention, renditions, the opposition to extending the right of habeas corpus to prisoners," Hayden said. "Although it is slightly different, Obama has been as aggressive as Bush in defending prerogatives about who he has to inform in Congress for executive covert action."
[Emphasis added]

Last Wednesday 9th Circuit decided that those caught up in the horrific snares of rendition and torture have no right to damages because to secure those damages via a fair and open trial, something this nation once believed was an essential liberty, might reveal "state secrets," a defense regularly used by the Obama Department of Justice, even when the government is not a party to the litigation.

Behold the Imperial Presidency, something which Adam Serwer rightfully skewers in a post at The American Prospect. Atrios had a terse and cynical response to Serwer's essay on how to end the Imperial Presidency here:

What it will take (and even then only temporarily) is a Republican Congress, a Democratic president, and a real or perceived abuse of power against some part of the conservative tribe.

If Atrios is right, and I fear he is, then more than the Twin Towers were destroyed nine years ago. I think Tim Rutten would agree:

The further descent into the false exigencies of the national security state are different and far more threatening, as the Obama administration's eager embrace of their cover demonstrates. Our essential liberties survived the Cold War diminished but intact. Now, the "war on terror" is eroding them further in a conflict in which no one seems able to define a final victory.

I would only add that it is possible that victory is upon us. Unfortunately, we are not wearing the victor's garland.

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Silly Season

The November ballot will, as is customary in California, contain a number of state propositions which voters will have to grapple with. Sometimes those propositions are crafted by the state legislature to get the voters' approval on borrowing measures as required by the state constitution. Usually, however, the propositions are placed by special interest groups who want to impose their will on the people, as evidenced in past elections by such wonders as Proposition 13 (which froze property taxes and which is a major reason for the state's economic woes) and Proposition 8 (the homophobic bill currently being litigated in the federal courts).

This November we have Proposition 23, which would nullify a state law requiring the state to roll back carbon emission levels in an attempt to slow global warming. Prop 23 was initiated by some oil companies who saw the threat of reduced profits on the horizon. The campaign for Prop 23 is being funded by some pretty deep pockets, but the opponents of the proposition are fighting back and with some pretty amazing help from unlikely sources, as this Los Angeles Times article makes clear.

The fight over Proposition 23, a November ballot initiative to suspend California's global warming law, turned ugly this week, with personal attacks and emotionally charged rhetoric on both sides.

In a conference call with the news media Thursday, former Secretary of State George Shultz, co-chairman of the campaign against the initiative, warned of the danger to national security from dependence on oil imports, noting that part of "this money is undoubtedly slopping over into the hands of terrorists."

The state's 2006 global warming law would promote a transition from oil to clean energy, he said, adding, "We can't let these Texas oil characters take it away from us. So, 'No on 23.' "

George Shultz, for crying out loud! He of the Reagan cabinet...

In this case, however, he is on the side of the angels. So is retired Adm. Dennis McGinn, a former deputy chief of naval operations, who sees climate change as "a threat multiplier" in terms of national security.

And the proponents of Prop 23? Oh, just the usual suspects:

Two Texas-based refiners, Valero Energy Corp. and Tesoro Corp., along with Kansas-based oil giant Koch Industries, are primary backers of the proposition, which would delay the law's curbs on carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and other planet-heating emissions until unemployment in the state dropped to 5.5% for at least a year. The jobless rate is now more than 12%.

How nice of them to worry about the state's unemployment rate, as if switching to clean energy wouldn't create some badly needed jobs in California as well as put a brake on the emissions contributing to climate change. Prop 8's backers don't give a rodent's hindquarter about jobs, only continued obscene profits, and they're willing to put a few dollars of those profits behind the drive to keep us addicted to oil.

My take?

If even a real Reagan Republican is concerned about climate change and dependence on foreign oil for national security reasons, the tide just might be changing.

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Thursday, September 09, 2010

How Local Sausage Is Made

In a sense, this news is strictly local. A former Los Angeles City Council member lobbied his old friends in city government on behalf of businesses for years without going through the formality of registering as a lobbyist, as required by city laws. At the same time, however, it's a pretty good example of how business interests and politics are closely intertwined at all levels of government.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has decided not to file felony criminal charges against former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre, even though investigators found that he worked as a lobbyist for years without identifying himself as one.

Cooley's Public Integrity Division concluded "without doubt" that Alatorre was an unregistered lobbyist at City Hall from 2003 to 2007 — an activity that qualifies as a misdemeanor violation of the city's ethics law. But the office also determined that his various efforts to avoid registering with the Ethics Commission did not rise to the level of a felony conspiracy.

The whole point of the city's ethics law was to identify lobbyists so that the public would know when outside interests were being pushed with elected officials. According to the article, Mr. Alatorre, who was on the City Council for years before resigning ten years ago, continued to drop by City Hall on a regular basis and kept in contact with his buddies still serving in some capacity in city government. Mayor Villaraigosa considers him a mentor and speaks with him regularly. At the same time, Mr. Alatorre was also accepting money from companies with business before the city as "a consultant."

Now, it's not illegal for a former elected official to become a lobbyist. The law simply requires that the former official register as a lobbyist. Mr. Alatorre didn't. He, along with another long time figure in California politics, found some loopholes.

After the ballot referendum known as Measure R went into effect, lobbyists were required to register if they worked 30 hours over a three-month period. That threshold made it difficult to determine whether Alatorre needed to register as a lobbyist between Jan 15, 2007, and Oct. 1, 2007, prosecutors wrote.

"How do you accurately demonstrate how long a phone call took, and what portion of that phone call constitutes lobbying? Is it some of it? Is it all of it? That's a really difficult thing to address," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Jennifer Lentz Snyder.

Mr. Alatorre used that 30 hour threshold to his advantage. As far as the public was concerned, all he was doing was being sociable with old friends the way retirees often are. Except apparently Alatorre was interspersing chats about mutual friends and about the health of family members with messages about some new friends and the health of their businesses. With that kind of access, I suspect Mr. Alatorre served the businesses he "consulted" for quite well.

After an earlier Los Angeles Times article linked Alatorre to a major real estate developer and his activities became a little less murky, the former councilman finally registered, listing one client.

The District Attorney rightfully declined to prosecute Mr. Alatorre. Proving a conspiracy would have been too difficult. Their investigation, however, has been turned over to the Ethics Commission for further review. If they proceed with misdemeanor charges and prove them up, Mr. Alatorre could face some jail time.

That would be a nice start.


Wednesday, September 08, 2010

And The Hits Keep Right On Coming

The Los Angeles Times continues its ongoing, if intermittent, series on insurance companies' malfeasance with this article in today's edition. The target this time is PacificCare, owned by UnitedHealth.

California regulators are seeking fines of up to $9.9 billion from health insurer PacifiCare over allegations that it repeatedly mismanaged medical claims, lost thousands of patient documents, failed to pay doctors what they were owed and ignored calls to fix the problems.

In court filings and other documents, the California Department of Insurance says PacifiCare violated state law nearly 1 million times from 2006 to 2008 after it was purchased by UnitedHealth Group Inc., the nation's largest health insurance company by revenue.
[Emphasis added]

The size of the penalties being sought is staggering, but it is reflective of both state law and the egregious behavior of the HMO/PPO insurance provider. Nearly a million violations at $10,000 a pop is guaranteed to get not only PacifiCare's attention but also that of other insurers in the state.

At the heart of the case is the $9.2-billion deal that put PacifiCare under the wing of UnitedHealth Group, an insurance behemoth based near Minneapolis that now has 25 million policyholders in 50 states and had $81 billion in revenue last year. ...

But complaints emerged soon after the deal closed. Doctors said PacifiCare failed to acknowledge their claims or to enter correct payment contract rates into its computer system, resulting in lower reimbursements. Providers also said the insurer mixed up which physicians belonged to its medical network.

Policyholders, meanwhile, inundated the Department of Insurance with complaints about PacifiCare losing their records, some of which were shipped to India, where they were miscoded and could not be retrieved. Many customers said the insurer denied claims for covered procedures and then ignored requests for help.
[Emphasis added]

The insurer not only broke its contracts with policy holders, it also broke its contracts with health care providers. Ironically, the only violation the company admits to is that for a brief period of time it failed to provide policy holders with written information on how to appeal its decisions. That in itself signals the primary operating procedure: delay, delay, delay until the aggrieved party just gets frustrated and goes away. Or dies.

The case is still pending at the administrative hearing level. The judge in the case will finish hearing the case and will then issue recommendations to the Insurance Commissioner. His decision can then be appealed to the Superior Court, which will start the litigation phase all over again. The system is one which provides due process protection, but one which will take years to complete. The insurance company knows this. It's a feature for them. Delay.

Thankfully, the Los Angeles Times has been covering the health insurance industry relentlessly, exposing that industry's less savory practices. It's amazing what a little sunlight can do, and hopefully it will have some long term effect this time as well.

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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Good News (Sorta Kinda)

Americans used less energy last year, according to this Washington Post article. A report from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which can be found here, provided some relatively good news, all things considered.

A bright spot in the nation's flickering economy is that Americans used less energy last year than in 2008, according to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which recently published its findings online.

"Part of the reason is [that] the whole economy shrank," said A.J. Simon, an energy analyst at Livermore who calculated that overall energy use in the country dropped from 99.2 quadrillion BTUs in 2008 to 94.6 quadrillion in 2009. "People are doing less stuff overall, using less oil, saving money."

Another reason, Simon added, is that the residential, industrial, commercial and transportation sectors of the economy are using more products that are energy-efficient. ...

The data also revealed that people are increasingly relying on hydropower, geothermal and wind energy, thereby cutting their use of coal, natural gas and petroleum. For the past seven or eight years, Simon added, the amount of wind energy used to generate electricity has steadily grown, with a 37 percent increase this past year from 0.51 quadrillion BTUs in 2008 to 0.7 quadrillion in 2009.
[Emphasis added]

The bad news, of course, is that the economy imploded in 2009, which meant that manufacturers and shippers geared down, using a lot less energy. The good news is that consumers cut back on energy use by installing swirlies, new windows, and better insulation in order to save a little money. Contrary to Dick Cheney's theory, conservation can have an impact on energy use.

The best news, however, is that new, greener forms of energy are beginning to replace carbon-based forms, which is a plus for all sorts of reasons.

The trick is going to be to continue these savings once (if) the economy picks up. While I am generally opposed to all of these fake "Wars On ...", a national drive to conserve energy and to develop more green energy would be a welcome initiative on a federal level. Maybe that fellow in the White House could help out here.

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Monday, September 06, 2010

Unhappy Labor Day

Labor doesn't have much to celebrate today, nor do the rest of us. Unemployment is still unconscionably high, companies continue to lay people off, and those companies which are hiring are doing so at the low-wage end of the spectrum. About the only thing we have to be grateful for is that this day also marks the unofficial end of Summer, which has been brutally hot for large sections of the country.

I surveyed some folks last night at Eschaton as to whether their hometowns were having any kind of Labor Day Parade or celebration. Most replied that they were unaware of any such events. Only one, Ralphie, who is in Milwaukee (my old hometown), noted such an event. (Go here for the details.)

Because it's an election year, some unions are hosting Labor Day Breakfasts and inviting candidates to come and campaign, but I doubt many candidates are looking forward to that chore. There's a lot of deep-seated anger among blue collar workers right now, and justifiably so. Any incumbent walking through the door can anticipate hostility.

I live in the Los Angeles area, and as far as I can tell, no such parade is planned, although there might be one which just hasn't gotten much in the way of publicity. A search of the Los Angeles Times didn't contain any listing, but I didn't check the "events" section because the web site is too damned difficult to navigate.

What the Los Angeles Times did have, however, was a passably good editorial on the state of labor today. That state, unfortunately, is not a very healthy one. The editorial does a nice job organizing and analyzing the current situation with respect to the dismal employment picture, and for that reason alone is worth the read. One section, however, bothered me. Here it is:

More jobs are being lost than created. After the 2001 recession began, it took almost three years for job gains to pull firmly ahead of losses. We're in a similar situation now, but with a much steeper drop in employment creating a far deeper hole to climb out of. Non-farm job losses outnumbered gains in all but one month from January 2008 to January 2010. Since February, job gains have pulled narrowly ahead of job losses in the private sector, but government layoffs tipped the balance back in June, July and August.

Employers have the resources to hire — corporate profits have bounced back strongly from the recession and companies have stockpiled huge amounts of cash — but not the will, at least not in the U.S. Conservatives blame the Obama administration for creating uncertainty about taxes and regulatory burdens, but the greater uncertainty for businesses is whether consumers are ready to begin spending again.
[Emphasis added]

I think the center-left editorial board has misread things dreadfully. If the companies want consumers to buy their products or services, they need to start hiring so the consumers have the money to spend.


What I think is going on is that too many companies are back to thinking only in three-month increments. Quarterly reports which reflect reduced labor costs and higher profits keep the shareholders happy and the share prices high. That, of course, means bonuses for the CEOs and other top executives, who then proceed to reduce labor costs further. Sooner or later that mode of operation is going to bite the companies' backsides, and we'll go from the Great Recession into the Great Depression II, one which will pinch even the wealthy.

That cavil aside, however, the editorial also contains some of the proposals being thrown about to bring employment back. Like I said: it's worth a read.


Sunday, September 05, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Khadija Anderson


What black shroud
should we wrap
our brothers in?

As we walk like ghosts
orange petals of martyrs
become black stems

of bombed fields
As we are murdered
in the name of some mistake

We shield ourselves
from intruding eyes
in our black coverings

The truth is the drones
the bombs the truth
is we are oppressed

Not by our religion
not by our clothing.

--Khadija Anderson

(Found at Poets Against War.)

The Churchy State

This week's visit to Watching America was an unusually short one, mainly because the featured article was an absolutely perfect match for what I had been thinking about for days. It's from Palestine's Al Quds and deals with the peculiar relationship between government and religion in this country. It's author, Khalil al-Anani, pretty much nails it, even though I disagree with one of his findings.

More than 200 years ago, the United States set a goal to guarantee freedom of belief and religious practice for all faiths, especially for those who had been oppressed in their countries of origin. To ensure that the unhappy European experience with freedom of religion would not be repeated, America’s Founding Fathers made the Constitution a genuine expression of liberalism. They sanctified religious freedom and forbid violations of that freedom in any way, thereby distinguishing the American model of secularism from its European counterparts.

In brief, American secularism is consistently characterized by three traits: First, to borrow the famous phrase of the late Dr. Abd al-Wahhab al-Messiri, it is a partial secularism. That is, even though this model separates religion from state in terms of operations, it does not separate religion from society in terms of practice. This leaves each individual the freedom to embrace (or not embrace) any religion he chooses, tacitly ensuring the protection of and respect for religious belief, practice and symbols.

Second, it is a secularist model, because although it forbids the state from officially adopting or favoring any one religion, it also acknowledges rights for all religious sects and guarantees each the right to worship without restriction through the establishment of places of worship. These rights were enumerated in 1791 in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution, alongside the prohibition on Congress from bias toward any one religion.

Third, it is a secularism of faith, meaning that this model takes a negative stance toward atheism even if it does not forbid it. Perhaps this goes back to the genesis of the United States itself, as a place of refuge for the many devout Protestants who sought to escape the religious persecution they faced in Europe at the end of the 17th century.

My first complaint is rather a nitpicking one. Technically speaking, the government does not forbid atheism, but it allows for certain practices which belie that as an acceptable choice. Our currency and our Pledge of Allegiance both make that quite clear. On a less formal level, the US military has long brought pressure to bear on recruits to hew to the Christian format (for example, at the Air Force Academy).

My second complaint is not exactly a complaint because I suspect Khalil al-Anani was being polite. Yes, this nation does protect freedom of religious expression, but the table is tilted towards Christianity, especially conservative Protestant Christianity these days. It took Pagans and Jews a long time and a lot of hard work to get some kind of equality for displays on public property during the Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter, each of which has antecedents in both non-Christian religions.

Such a non-level field has tilted even further to the righteous these past few months as members of the Muslim faith have learned. Not only has holy hell been raised by alleged Christians at the thought of an Islamic cultural center which would include a space for prayer near "Ground Zero", one leader of the Religious Reich intends to host a barbecue on 9/11 in which the fuel will be Korans.

People of good will deplore such disrespect, yet they are not the least dismayed by the use of governmental property, property which is owned by all of us, for the promotion of one particular segment of the religious spectrum. Glenn Beck's Extravaganza is one example, but a more recent example came this week in California. What the two events both espoused was that each convocation was non-political in nature, even non-specific religious in nature.

From the Sacramento Bee:

Summoned by conservative Christian leaders from around the country, thousands gathered on the west steps of the Capitol on Saturday for 12 hours of solemn prayer, gospel and Christian rock – and repeated calls to end abortion and gay marriage.

Much of the day was devoted to speeches about God, love and morality, but there was considerable blurring of the line between religion and politics. ...

"Our citizenship is in heaven," said Rachel Wegner, 25, a nurse who attended from Redding. "This is not political or even religious – denominations don't matter, political parties don't matter. It's completely spiritual."

The stage was flanked by giant video screens and banners proclaiming, "Only one hope – Jesus." Attendees were asked to fast for the day, although volunteers passed out bottled water. At times, small groups formed prayer circles or marched to a large cross, fashioned from metal scaffolding, set up across the street from the Capitol.
[Emphasis added]

The only thing that kept me from taking permanently to my bed this morning was this article about a small-town in California which expressed disgust at the vandalism of their town's only mosque. Those people knew people there, knew who would be affected as neighbors, as health care providers for several generations, as fellow citizens. That's some solace, but not enough.

Until each neighbor is willing to give up whatever privilege they have until all share in the American dream, even those who are non-believers, this nation will be churchy. And that is just as unacceptable as Steven Colbert's truthiness.

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Sunday Funnies

(Polical cartoon by Joel Pett / Lexington Herald-Leader (September 1, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Humpback Whale

(Photograph courtesy Dr. Louis M. Herman/NOAA and published by National Geographic.)

What Crabby Said

One of the blogs I visit daily is Ronni Bennett's Time Goes By. Her blog details "what it's really like to get older", and does so with humor, scathing commentary, and, on occasion, outrage. She has recruited a wonderful crew of elders to post with her, but my favorite posts are inevitably those written when Ronni dons the cloak of her "Crabby Old Lady" persona to skewer some situation or group which has mistakenly assumed that older people of our culture are easy targets.

Crabby made another appearance this past Thursday in a post titled Fear of Food. Written with the massive egg recall in mind, the post takes a good hard look at the food peddled for our consumption and the dangers of indulging in a past time we all, regardless of our age, indulge in: eating.

There are already a lot of things Crabby Old Lady doesn't eat. After E. coli was found in packaged spinach four years ago, she stopped using packaged vegetables – leafy ones, roots, herbs, anything. If they aren't loose, she doesn't buy them; those sealed plastic bags are perfect petri dishes for growing nasty, disease-bearing bacteria.

Crabby isn't much of a beef eater, but a couple of times a year she craves a big, fat hamburger with all the fixings on a toasted bun. No more; Crabby hasn't eaten one for years because it's not a burger to her if it's not medium rare and there are too many, regularly-occurring recalls due to E. coli. - just three weeks ago, one million pounds were recalled. ...

Whenever there is a new, widespread outbreak of food-borne illness, government agencies go all religious on us about inspections – for a short while. But imagine how long it takes for eight-foot piles of chicken manure to build up and where were the USDA, DOA, etc. - the agencies responsible for the safety of the food supply - during that time?

Could this be a political issue? Undoubtedly, giant agribusinesses have lobbyists in Washington, but even politicians who want to kill Social Security wouldn't trade food safety for campaign donations. Would they?

Crabby's question is clearly rhetorical, since we all know the answer to that one. Of course they would, but that's only half the problem. During the extended aftermath of 9/11, someone fussed that one target of the terrorists might be our food supply, and we would all be DOOMED! The terrorists needn't bother. Our own government is perfectly capable of doing the job without any further assistance.

It's not just the Congress critters who are on the payroll of the agribusinesses and other megacorps. Regulatory agencies (part of the Executive Branch) have been stocked by presidents eager to reward supporters with cushy jobs. Appointees to those agencies also see the job they've been hired to do as a mere stepping stone to an even more lucrative position with the companies they've been hired to keep an eye on, so that eye often blinks.

Evidence of those blinks (or winks) have piled up over the last decade, from mining disasters to oil spills and explosions on rigs and platforms, from automobile recalls to food recalls. In nearly every case, the disasters could have been prevented if the federal regulatory had done what they were designed to do, enforce the regulations composed to protect the American public.

I guess the concept that the government should "promote the general welfare" has gone out of fashion, which is both shameful and criminal.

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Friday, September 03, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Something's Wrong With This Picture

Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, has an interesting op-ed piece in the New Times this morning. The whole article is worth the read because he offers what I think are some sensible and realistic moves to get the economy back on the right track.

What struck me most was his reiteration of one of most basic facts of the current stall we seem to be stuck in:

Where have all the economic gains gone? Mostly to the top. The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty examined tax returns from 1913 to 2008. They discovered an interesting pattern. In the late 1970s, the richest 1 percent of American families took in about 9 percent of the nation’s total income; by 2007, the top 1 percent took in 23.5 percent of total income.

If workers can't afford to buy the products our economy can produce, then production won't be pushed. Workers will get laid off, thereby deepening the spiral. Henry Ford knew that this kind of income disparity would work against his venture to manufacture and sell automobiles, so he made sure his workers made a decent wage.

That's a concept today's captains of industry don't seem to grasp. The focus is not on the general economy but rather on their own personal economy, as this article featured in McClatchy DC makes clear.

The nation's biggest job-cutting companies paid their top executives an average of $12 million last year, according to a report released today.

The 50 U.S. chief executives who laid off the most employees between November 2008 and April 2010 eliminated a total of 531,363 jobs, according to the Institute for Policy Studies, a research group that works for social justice and against wealth concentration. ...

The top 50 layoff firms reported a 44 percent average profit increase for 2009, the report said.

"These numbers all reflect a broader trend in Great Recession-era Corporate America: the relentless squeezing of worker jobs, pay and benefits to boost corporate earnings and maintain corporate executive paychecks at their recent bloated levels," the authors wrote.
[Emphasis added]

Reich's article does a good job tracing out what this kind of behavior leads to. At this point it's a Great Recession, but sooner or later this bubble is going to burst, and the resulting meltdown will be far worse, even for the wealthy. Stashing jobs and wealth in Asia isn't going to prevent the implosion, it will simply hasten it.

The fact that the current administration doesn't seem to get this simple proposition is every bit as appalling as the behavior of them that's got and who are out for it all. But, hey! A big three day weekend is coming up. It is, after all Labor Day.

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